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My Banjo Story: Weston Stewart, 2011 National Champion

Weston Stewart, 2011 National Banjo Champion

My banjo story:

My mom has worked at Athens State University for the past 26 years and, as most of you know, Athens State is host to The Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Conventions. I have attended this great convention, with my parents, every year that I can remember.

It was at this convention that I found my love for music and became interested in playing an instrument.  At 10 years old, while attending this convention I heard the song Foggy Mountain Breakdown being played on the banjo and decided that it was the banjo that I really liked.  So, I approached my mom about playing the banjo.   She thought that I wasn’t serious but she told me that she would see what she could find out about them.  So, I waited patiently, asking every month or so if she had found me one yet.

Finally, I took matters into my own hands and found a classified ad in the local newspaper for a $200.00 banjo.  I waited for my mom to get home from work that day to show her the ad and told her that I had saved enough buy it.  Finally, she took me serious.  It had only taken me three years to convey my seriousness, but I had finally won, and my mom started checking into what would become my future.  She called several local music stores searching for information about banjos.   She said that she didn’t know what I needed to start with or where I needed to start, so she was looking for advice from the local music stores.

She was on what she said was her 6th and final call when the music store employee told her the usual, “I really don’t know that much about the banjo,” but then she added “but, there is a banjo player standing right here, would you like to talk with him?”  My mom says it was divine intervention since she had not been able to get any information about banjos until then.  Anyway, that banjo player turned out to be Robert “Scooter” Muse a local musician who became my mentor and friend.  Scooter ended up selling me a beginner quality banjo for $250.00 and offered to teach me to play.  So, three years later, at 13 years old, I finally had a banjo in my hands and a very qualified instructor.

My parents were great about my decision to play the banjo after they finally realized that it wasn’t just a passing thought of mine.  However, my mom told me from the beginning that she was not going to waste her time or mine on something that I didn’t put any effort into, and that if I didn’t practice my banjo she would not take me to lessons.  It didn’t take her long to realize that she didn’t need to worry about that, and she then began to use my banjo practice as a punishment telling me that if I didn’t have my homework finished first then I wouldn’t be allowed to go to banjo practice.  She never made me miss a practice…but the threat did change my bad homework habits.  Anyway, all in all, my parents were extremely supportive from the beginning.  They took me to every bluegrass festival, competition or jam that they could find, usually with my grandparents in tow.   I had my own entourage at an early age.

When I first started playing the banjo, I would practice a few hours a day until things started to fall into place and I could actually hear the melody in the songs, then my practice would sometimes last as long as 8 hours a days, especially during my summer break when I was out of school.  I can remember my mom leaving for work at around 7:30 in the morning and at 5:00 in the evening when she came home I would still be on the couch with my banjo.  I guess you could say that the banjo had consumed me by that point.

Scooter encouraged me to go to festivals and competitions.  He also encouraged me to enter those competitions.  He said that a taste of the stage would be good for me and that I would not win, so I shouldn’t expect to.  He said that he just wanted me to get on stage and do the best that I could.  Well, I did and I didn’t think that my legs would ever quit shaking.  However, I did enjoy the applause that I got and I decided to do it again later.  From there things moved pretty fast for me and by the time I was 15 I had won my first competition with my legs still shaking.

During this time anything “banjo” got and kept my attention.   I continued to go to festivals and competitions and I would look for anyone that was open to jam with me.  I met many friends along the way who added to my abilities by showing me little things on the banjo or teaching me the chords to a new song.  Some of the people have been professionals while others were just individuals who simply grew up playing and loving music.  Many thanks for my music abilities are given to the friends I have made along the way.  It would have been great if I had been born into a family that played music together, but I wasn’t; so all this bluegrass stuff was new to my whole family.

I don’t, by any means, consider myself a “GREAT” banjo player, but I do strive to do my best and have pushed myself to be a “GOOD” banjo player.  I love all types of banjo playing styles, but really enjoy the melodic style most of all.  Melodic playing is what I believe Scooter loves and he passed that on to me.  Scooter also pushed me to be the best that I could to the point of telling me that he wanted me to learn more than he could write down for me.  He told me that he couldn’t teach me anymore and that I needed to work on learning things from others by listening to CDs or just hearing them play.  Talk about driving a kid crazy.  I was bound and determined that I would succeed at this.  So, I spent many hours in front of a CD player with my finger on the rewind button, listening to players like Earl Scruggs, Larry McNeely, JD Crowe, Mike Snider, Randal Morton, Bela Fleck, James McKinney, Scott Vestal, Alan Munde, Eddie Arnold, and so many more that I can’t mention them all.  Each of these players had their own unique style or sound that made them stand out some way to me and made me realize that I wanted to be unique also.  Anyway, I soon developed an ear for music and an ability to pick up stuff pretty quickly on my own.

In 2009, I was noticed by banjo maker Tom Nechville.  Tom seemed real interested in my playing and I picked up an endorsement from him in the form of a custom Phantom Galaxy Banjo.  I also picked up an endorsement from BlueChip picks and a string endorsement from Ernie Ball Music Man.  I don’t know what I would do without them.  Thank you Nechville, Ernie Ball and BlueChip.

Also, in 2009 I began a new endeavor.  I became a member of The Soul Pickers.  This is a bluegrass group on Tom T and Dixie Hall’s Blue Circle Label.  I now perform with Ricky Reece and Fast Forward.

Currently, I have placed or won in more than 75 competitions to include 10 state titles, the 2011 Merlefest Bluegrass Banjo Championship title, and the 2011 National Bluegrass Banjo Championship title.    I am extremely honored to have won these titles.

Finally, I don’t know that I will always compete but I do know that I will always love the banjo and I will always play the music that I love as long as God grants me the time and ability to do so.  I would also like to thank you for taking your time to read about a small town banjo player from Alabama.

God Bless you and I hope to meet you out pickin sometime.

Weston Stewart, an Alabama native from Anderson, Alabama, holds 14 state titles on banjo, as well as the 2011 National Bluegrass Banjo Title. In 2013, he was the Tennessee state champion on both banjo and dobro. Stewart is a master artist with the State Arts Council’s Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program and is passing on his musical knowledge to students in North Alabama. –  see more athttp://www.noodls.com/view/B4E3BB67B173C976F0B574409A6CBF9CD1935E47?7563xxx1393360464#sthash.SHlmHWuw.dpuf

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